Before we start I want to make something clear: I enjoyed Max’s article. In fact I agree with a lot of what he says about specific decks and match-ups; however I strongly disagree with his framing view of the format. I’ve written before about my earliest Legacy experience getting killed on turn 1 or turn 2 in consecutive games by Iggy Pop while naively trying to win with Affinity. However I fundamentally disagree with the view he takes of Legacy as a whole. Here’s how Max started his article:
“There is a persistent myth that Legacy is a wide-open format with dozens of different strategies and decks and that you can play more or less anything you want. That claim is just not true. The best Legacy decks are deliberately configured to interact with their opponents as little as possible; therefore prospective Legacy decks must be capable of either disrupting their opponent's strategy or be able to goldfish their opponent before he can execute his strategy. Most of Legacy's aggressive decks can't do either effectively; accordingly attacking is completely miserable in Legacy.”
Let’s unpack and analyze these statements one at a time.
In his opening sentence Max is presenting two different supposed myths about Legacy. The first is that Legacy is a wide-open format with “dozens” of different strategies and decks. If we take the words literally I would say that Max is correct. There aren’t literally dozens of viable decks or strategies. When you break down the format most of the best-performing decks revolve around a few cards or strategies: Merfolk Goblins Zoo ANT Belcher CB/Top Dredge Lands and Trinisphere decks tend to be the dominant (or at least popular) strategies with Reanimator Enchantress and Aggro Loam occasionally breaking through and winning a bigger tournament. Of those Reanimator seems likely to have “legs” and will probably continue to be a higher-tier strategy. However Legacy is probably the broadest format when you look at the number of cards that have been used in successful decks in large tournaments. So literally dozens of decks? No. Is Legacy the broadest format in Constructed Magic? Probably yes.
The second myth Max proposes is that you can play “anything you want” more or less. I honestly haven’t heard this said about Legacy of late especially as the format has evolved from a more casual base to a more competitive base during the past 12-18 months. There’s definitely some truth to the idea that many people brewed up decks before big tournaments and had success just running the strategies they liked but recent tournament results aren’t being dominated by Thallids or Cats.dec or anything like that. The Grand Prix and SCG Tour® naments are being won by established archetypes that have consistently made top eights and can be found under development and discussion on The Source. Regardless if there is a belief out there that you can play anything you want in Legacy that is definitely false. Legacy is a broad format but it can be a very unforgiving format as well.
Max continues saying “The best Legacy decks are deliberately configured to interact with their opponents as little as possible.” I’m not really sure how to interpret this statement. Taken literally it is patently false. Clearly there are decks designed to interact with their opponents as little as possible in Legacy. Probably the purest example of this is Belcher combo. That deck literally does nothing interactive outside of killing the opponent with Belcher or attacking them with Empty the Warren tokens. Its entire purpose is to dodge interaction completely. Dredge is also rather low on the interactivity scale using Cabal Therapy and sometimes Unmask to lightly disrupt the opponent and make sure Dread Return resolves. Ad Nauseam needs to interact with its opponent to ensure its namesake spell resolves and does so using Duress and Orim’s Chant (and similar derivatives like Thoughtseize and Silence); that deck is also forced to interact in sideboard games. Reanimator makes use of Thoughtseize combined with Force of Will but against many decks it is effectively just gold-fishing.
So is there a set of decks for which this statement is true? Definitely.
However there is also an entire section of the format – including Merfolk the Counterbalance decks and the more traditional “big blue” type control decks that are popping up (including the Tezzeret deck that made Top 8 of the SCG Indy tournament) as well as hybrids of the two (such as AJ Sacher’s Thopter deck from the SCG Orlando tournament) – that is designed to interact with an opponent from turn one of the game. Merfolk in particular is designed to interact with its opponent constantly at pretty much every point of the game and in almost every zone when we include the sideboard. Interestingly over the course of the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open tournaments these strategies have generally been among the top performers while the non-interactive portion of Legacy made up of decks like Dredge and ANT have traditionally been very poor performers. This suggests that Max’s statement as written isn’t correct; while the most abstractly “powerful” or “unfair” Legacy decks are designed to function with minimal interactivity the “best” decks as we would traditionally consider them – that is to say the decks that have the best tournament results – are the most interactive and are designed for the most interactivity. The two types of decks that tend to do well in Legacy events are those that bypass interactivity based on power level and those that interact as much as possible and allow strong players to leverage that play skill. To some degree this does support Max’s idea that attacking is miserable as Zoo does not fall into either of those categories.
“Therefore prospective Legacy decks must be capable of either disrupting their opponent's strategy or be able to goldfish their opponent before he can execute his strategy.” I agree with this statement because it is the basic definition of a game of Magic: The Gathering. It isn’t just true in Legacy this is true everywhere! In Standard if I’m pitting Jund against Jace Control Jace needs to disrupt my strategy before I can goldfish my opponent. In Vintage in Noble Fish against TPS Noble Fish needs to disrupt TPS long enough to goldfish its opponent. This is just Who’s the Beatdown. Somebody is taking the control role and trying to disrupt long enough to reach their endgame while the other deck is attempting to “goldfish” before the game slips away.
The issue that Max is trying to point out is how anyone finds it acceptable to play a deck like Goblins or Zoo that literally cannot interact with an opponent playing something like ANT especially during the first game of a match. In a straight-up race linear aggro is always a massive underdog to a gold-fishing combo deck. Therefore in a field full of non-interactive combo linear aggro is an awful choice even if you have a decent number of sideboard cards; the speed of Legacy combo decks is intense as unrestricted Lion’s Eye Diamond gives decks like LED Dredge Belcher and ANT amazing capability for speed including turn-one win potential. There is literally no way a deck that wants to play a 3/3 on turn one can keep up with those decks.
Thankfully Legacy isn’t made up of Linear Aggro against Non-interactive Combo; those decks that are designed to interact that I mentioned earlier – CB/Top variations and Merfolk mainly – are highly effective at beating non-interactive combo decks. Why? The number of interactive cards in a typical Counterbalance or Merfolk deck trumps the token interactivity present in Legacy combo decks; the more interactive cards a combo deck includes the slower its goldfish becomes and the more susceptible they are to losing to linear aggro (remembering that the more aggressive Zoo and Goblins decks are capable of winning on turn 3 with their faster hands). Despite the fact that these highly interactive decks are great against many non-interactive decks they don’t roam the format unchecked either. CB/Top and other blue decks are vulnerable to Merfolk and Goblins in particular and Zoo to a lesser extent; Zoo is capable of beating Merfolk and Goblins in exchange for a worse match-up against Blue decks and a much worse combo match-up as compared to Merfolk.
Legacy has also shown repeatedly that there are decks that one might consider mid-range or non-blue control or slow-burn combo decks – decks like Aggro Loam or Trinistax or 43 Lands or Enchantress – that sit outside the traditional pillars of the format and can have success in the right field. Depending on the field you expect you can build these decks to tilt against one side – interactive or non-interactive – while dodging most of the sideboard hate or metagame slant that players build into their decks.
Max states that most aggressive aggro decks are incapable of disrupting their opponent sufficiently or goldfishing fast enough and therefore those decks are “miserable”; again the problem with this view is that a deck like Goblins is perfectly capable of disrupting a blue deck enough to win while a Zoo deck is capable of goldfishing against most highly interactive decks and often can do so against some of the mid-range style decks as well. Merfolk is a perfect example of a super-interactive deck that has a rather slow goldfish and isn’t a true control deck yet it is capable of performing against the most unfair Combo decks and the most controlling decks as well.
Why is Legacy Awesome?
In my opinion the fact that Legacy even functions at all is just… amazing. Look at the number of cards available when building a Legacy deck and how many years of development they span; then consider the power level of some of the unrestricted cards many of which are restricted in Vintage: Lion’s Eye Diamond Trinisphere Lotus Petal Mystical Tutor and so on. Despite this fact Legacy tournaments continue to show that the full range of deck styles available to Magic players are capable of winning any given event. To be clear: not every deck can win a Legacy tournament. You can’t play whatever you want in this format. However you can play the best versions of any given Magic archetype – control combo aggro and every blend and flavor in-between – and have a reasonable chance of winning if you hit your match-ups and play Magic at a high level.
Legacy is fundamentally built around dual lands and a handful of the best other cards chiefly (in my opinion) Tarmogoyf Force of Will Wasteland and Lion’s Eye Diamond. You are probably not going to win a Legacy tournament without any of these fourteen cards. However you can win Legacy tournaments without dual lands and without Goyf or Force of Will. You can win Legacy attacking with creatures or with a creatureless deck that wins using Storm or by playing a million lands a turn. Legacy is appealing because no matter what type of Magic you enjoy whether it’s Tribal aggro or combo big spell decks or a variety of control or tempo decks you can find it in Legacy and win with it.
Legacy is also unique in the way that fair decks and unfair decks interact. Yes ANT versus Zoo is pretty miserable for the Zoo player but Merfolk against Zoo is just as miserable for the Merfolk player if not more so. Legacy at least in the United States seems to favor the broader decks – Counterbalance Zoo Merfolk - over laser-focused combo decks.
Why is Attacking in Legacy Awesome?
The StarCityGames.com Open series has shown that you can show up at a big Legacy tournament looking to turn Goblins or Wild Nacatls sideways and come home with a trophy. For a format with such an enormous card pool and so many “broken” decks the fact that Zoo can win is to me a triumph of format management for Wizards of the Coast and the DCI. The recent trend of WotC development increasing creature power level over time while decreasing spell power level also helps many of the traditional aggro decks in the format. In other words Zoo and Merfolk continue to increase in power level while most of the broken combo decks are “broken” because of cards released a decade ago; one potential deck that sits outside this rule is Reanimator which (like Oath of Druids in Vintage) is getting better over time as Wizards prints stronger targets.
As far as turning guys sideways Legacy Zoo is the same Zoo deck you’ve played in other formats but turbo-charged. The lands are better. The burn spells are much better. Played Price of Progress recently? That card is frankly insane. In Legacy you have more ability to control the size of Tarmogoyfs thanks to Grim Lavamancer and your Pridemages have better targets. Zoo isn’t anywhere near ANT’s level of power and yet the deck is fast enough that it warps the main-decks of blue decks throughout the format. In fact over the past year Zoo probably warps main-decks in Legacy more than any other deck in the format.
Similarly Merfolk is a deceptively powerful metagame player capable of being built to attack a variety of targets (including a better Zoo match-up if one plays Green for Goyf and/or white for Plow) and turning fish sideways is a perfectly acceptable strategy. Merfolk is sort of a hyper-interactive deck. It interacts with your lands counters your spells bypasses your counterspells has a variety of creature control options and interacts with you in the red zone.
Honestly I’m stunned at the recent success of Goblins but the deck is capable of beating up on blue strategies and is still strong against mid-range and random-type decks so I can understand how it would crack into a top 8; from there it’s all about match-ups. Still given Goblins relatively poor match-up against competent Zoo players as well as a relatively weak combo match-up I’m as surprised as Max to see that deck hitting back-to-back finals matches.
Legacy is a difficult format. It is broad and complex. The decks that are high on the power-level scale – ANT Dredge Lands – take time to master. Playing ANT against control or Merfolk players is highly skill-intensive and like many Storm decks there is a level of luck involved with ANT that can cost players games. It also takes practice to learn what hands have to get shipped back and why for different match-ups and in Legacy this is a serious issue because small differences in decks create wildly different match-up results. Dredge is nowhere near the powerhouse in Legacy that it is in Vintage but it is still very good. However you also absorb more splash damage in Legacy than in Vintage from cards like Ghostly Prison Chalice of the Void Moat and Blood Moon just as a few examples. The more speed-oriented Dredge decks such as those that use LED are more prone to mulligans and consistency issues while those designed for reliability such as the list Max presented a few weeks ago are themselves vulnerable to the faster Legacy combo decks. Finally Lands is deceptively difficult to play as are most Loam decks. While the deck is obviously powerful there’s a reason why it’s performed best in the hands of a group of strong Magic players like Owen T Chris W and Cedric P.
The skill level required to play a given deck as well as any consistency issues or luck-based parts of a given deck (such as what you flip with ANT or during Dredging with Loam decks or straight Dredge decks) have to be taken into account when one analyzes what decks are the “best” or if a deck “should” have won any given game of Magic.
We also need to understand that trying to determine what the field “should” be is an exercise in futility. Saying things like the following will hinder your Legacy results:
Card availability / price warp the format.
Decks X Y and Z do poorly because their pilots are generally terrible.
Decks A B and C should be unplayable because they lose to minor niche decks D and E as well as common but poorly-performing decks F and G.
Do card availability and price warp the format? Sure to some extent. There are absolutely people out there that want to play Lands or Reanimator but are priced out of those decks. To some degree this affects every format of Constructed Magic. Thankfully Legacy offers a nice range of prices overall and people can compete with just a handful of dual lands or none at all depending on what they own or can borrow. Regardless what the field would look like if cost weren’t an issue isn’t relevant because it is an issue. What the format would look like if reprints happened is similarly a non-starter if you’re looking to determine what the “right” decks are for any given Legacy event.
Suggesting that decks do poorly because their pilots are terrible or unskilled is relatively ridiculous. In order to state this with any degree of accuracy (beyond the typical “Magic players are all terrible”-type of statements) we’d have to have access to the skill levels of all of the players of a given deck and measure that relative to the rest of the field. For a tournament with hundreds or thousands of players how anyone can make that type of assertion with a straight face is beyond me. What the field might look like if every Storm player were at LSV’s level isn’t helpful because there’s only one LSV (thank God for the rest of us).
Looking at the power level of a deck in the abstract is not always helpful. If the most powerful deck in a format is also the most difficult deck to play particularly if the deck is built in such a way that a single mistake will lose a typical game that deck would be a poor choice for a large portion of the field for a typical Magic event.
Stating that decks that have won and continue to win large cash prizes in big events are unplayable because they lose to minor role-players or more importantly lose to decks that cluster at the bottom of the tournament standings as the rounds progress (as ANT and Dredge have been shown to do repeatedly at the SCG $5Ks) is similarly self-defeating.
What we want the metagame to be or think it should be or could be if everyone was an amazing Magic player isn’t relevant. What matters is what the metagame actually is on the day you’re going to play Magic.
Bonus Decklist: Painter Sword
I have to admit I’m slightly obsessed with Painter’s Servant decks. I like to brew one up every few months. AJ’s recent top 8 and the excellent article that followed got my creative juices flowing a bit.
A year ago I spent some time playing a Painter deck that incorporated Counterbalance/Top and Stifles Phyrexian Dreadnought and Wasteland. That deck did a great job pummeling Merfolk and ANT but struggled badly against Canadian Thresh and Zoo. The popularity of those two decks reached a point where I could no longer expect to have success with my Painter deck. While Thresh is receding from the format at the moment Zoo is still popular and that makes Stifle and Dreadnought weak.
However AJ’s Thopter deck featuring the Thopter/Sword combo and Enlightened Tutors in a Counterbalance/Top shell provided an interesting baseline for what I wanted to do. The final product is lighter on pure control elements with a faster and more dedicated combo slant. I haven’t tested this deck as much as I need to yet but I’m enjoying it so far.
Voltron00x on SCG TMD and The Source